The Labour Party has long been at war with itself on the issue of trans rights. Under Keir Starmer’s flaccid leadership, the Party has staggered drunkenly to the right on social issues, allowing the Tories to set the terms of every debate and side-lining more radical voices within its ranks. On the matter of trans people—a “debate” that boils down to the question of whether an oppressed minority should be allowed to exist at all, let alone live their lives in freedom and safety—Labour has failed to take a straightforward stance.
The Party has no definition of transphobia that it can use to weed out bigots, despite having such definitions for other forms of discrimination such as racism and antisemitism. Meanwhile, MP for Canterbury Rosie Duffield has suffered no formal consequences for such virulently anti-trans comments as “I’m not calling Eddie Izzard a woman.” (Izzard, a gender-fluid trans woman, is standing to be the Labour MP for Sheffield.)
And Starmer himself has been, at best, equivocal in his support. He calls his party a proud ally of LGBT+ people, but is also persistently unclear about what he means when he says he is “an advocate of safe spaces for women.” So it should come as no surprise to see him undermining his own promise, made just weeks ago, to ban all conversion therapy, in the hopes of chasing a few reactionary votes.
Last week, Starmer was interviewed alongside Bridget Phillipson (the Shadow Secretary of State for Education) by Justine Roberts, the founder of the venomously transphobic parenting forum Mumsnet. One question from a forum user read, “[T]he Cass Review’s interim report showed that we were right to be concerned [about child safeguarding in the context of gender identity services], particularly with reference to the lack of evidence around the long-term consequences of puberty blockers. Can I please ask if you have read the report and how you would be guided by its recommendations to provide better safeguards for children?”
(The Cass Review was set-up as an independent review of gender identity services for children and young people, and is being conducted by Dr Hilary Cass, whose interim report was published in February 2022. Notably, it is being conducted without trans perspectives and trans people have been justifiably critical of the robustness of its independence and its lack of transparency.)
Starmer replied, “I do feel very strongly that children shouldn’t be making these very important decisions without the consent of their parents.” This response is startling. To begin with, the interim report’s most prominent recommendation was that gender identity services for children and young people should be expanded from the existing single centre (the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust in North London) to multiple regional clinics. This is an essential step, as demand for these services is so high that young people’s psychological wellbeing is put severely at risk while they wait for care. But Starmer chose to focus instead on the issue of children’s consent.
Moreover, his comments fly in the face of the legal precedent known as Gillick competence. This is a metric by which a child can be judged to be able to make an informed choice on their own behalf. Children judged to be Gillick competent have mercifully been able to receive vaccines, contraception, abortion care, and blood transfusions despite their parents’ objections. Starmer’s casual undermining of this principle implies not only that children under 16 are unable to meaningfully consent to receive puberty blockers, but more generally that children are their parents’ property to do with as they wish.
And finally, the context in which Starmer answered this question was disturbing. Phillipson responded first, talking about the complexities of providing appropriate support to trans children in the absence of clear guidance for schools. And so Starmer’s contribution was ambiguous, as it was unclear whether he was talking only about medical interventions, or about the support with social transition that schools might be able to provide. Social transition is the process by which someone chooses to live in the role of their authentic gender, for example by changing their name, pronouns, or gender expression such as haircut and clothes. So, does Starmer believe that schools should be unable to use a child’s preferred name or pronouns without their parents’ say-so?
The Cass Review’s interim report says that social transition is “an active intervention because it may have significant effects on the child or young person in terms of their psychological functioning.” This is a fair comment; social transition matters, and it is right to do more research into its effects on young people (and the effects of its denial). The report contains links to two papers on the subject of social transition: one that concludes that the evidence for its effects on mental wellbeing is inconclusive, and another that concludes that pre-pubescent social transition is broadly beneficial.
Social transition also remains the only kind of transition available to children and young people in the UK, since surgical transition and masculinizing/feminizing hormone treatments are unavailable to those under 18 (or under 17 in Wales). School is, of course, a formative space for children, and proactive support from schools is essential for children who are experiencing gender dysphoria. In fact, the possibility that both schools and medical services might be prevented from supporting a child to express their authentic gender is tantamount to conversion therapy, which Starmer explicitly disavowed at the PinkNews Awards last month.
So why did he take this baffling stance? This was a perfect opportunity for a meaningful intervention; he could have shut down the disingenuous question of safeguarding by talking about the risks of denying children appropriate care and support. But instead, he chose to throw a bone to the frothing transphobes who presumably will not vote for Labour anyway until he stops saying trans women are women (which, to give him the barest smidgen of credit, he has so far refused to do).
This whole debacle has spread the obnoxious Mumsnet interview. And perhaps Starmer wants more people to see it—wants to see him treading what he thinks is a moderate, “common-sense” path between two sides of a debate. But the problem with both-sidesing on such a polarizing issue is that you end up alienating everyone. Mumsnet members are already bemoaning his (false) claim that 99.9% of women are “biological women”, and are doubling down on their refusal to vote for his party. And meanwhile, the backlash from queer commentators has been unequivocal and severe. One wonders if he thinks it was worth it.
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